In a letter to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) dated September 22, 2016, the designated Senior Department Official (SDO) at the U.S. Department of Education (“the Department”) announced her decision to terminate ACICS as an accrediting agency recognized by the Department. The decision follows the recommendations of the Department’s staff and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an independent entity that advises the Department on accreditation agency issues. On June 23, 2016, following a public hearing at which ACICS presented its case and fielded questions, NACIQI voted to recommend that the Department deny a petition pending before the Department for renewal of ACICS recognition. The Department assigned Emma Vadehra, the Chief of Staff to Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., to serve as the SDO. The SDO had 90 days to review the NACIQI recommendation and the full Department staff record. Upon completion of her review, she concurred with the recommendations of Department staff and NACIQI.

The denial of ACICS recognition is significant due to its impact on hundreds of ACICS-accredited institutions that will have challenges finding alternate accrediting agencies. It also will negatively impact approximately 600,000 students currently enrolled in ACICS-accredited institutions who may have their education interrupted by precipitous school closures or be otherwise negatively impacted, such as through barriers to state occupational licensing exams for which only graduates of accredited institutions are eligible.

Under law, ACICS has 10 days from the SDO decision to file a notice of its intent to appeal and must file a written appeal with the Secretary within 30 days of the SDO decision. Following the appeal, a final determination will be made by the Secretary. ACICS filed its appeal to the Secretary today, September 23. Although no timeline is mandated for a decision on that appeal, Secretary King indicated in public comments this week that “if there’s an appeal, it would get resolved quickly.”

ACICS has announced its intent to file an appeal of the SDO decision to the U.S. Secretary King, as permitted by agency rules. Roger Williams, ACICS Interim President, stated:

“While we are disappointed in this decision, ACICS plans to continue diligent efforts to renew and strengthen its policies and practices necessary to demonstrate this agency's determination to come into full compliance with the Department of Education's recognition criteria and, most importantly, to improve outcomes for the estimated 600,000 students currently attending ACICS-accredited institutions. We are confident that if given the opportunity to do so, we will be able to demonstrate major reforms and ongoing progress towards compliance with the Department's recognition criteria.”

At this point, the action taken by the Department is not considered final. Only failure of ACICS to file a notice of intent to appeal within 10 days of September 22, or the Secretary’s rejection of that appeal, is considered a final action. It is important to note that the Department has indicated that schools accredited by ACICS will have 18 months from the date of any final action by the Department to obtain approval from another recognized accreditor and that they remain, during that 18-month period, eligible for federal student aid under provisional program participation agreements with the Department. Congress acted this week to mirror this authority to allow the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to continue VA education benefits uninterrupted through the same 18-month period.

Although the decision is not yet final, ACICS-accredited schools should address any state education agency requests for information and may want to prepare a contingency plan. Many states have requested ACICS schools to document their plan to assure an orderly continuation of educational services to students, including through teach-out arrangements with other schools. ACICS has recommended that member schools submit all requested documentation to the appropriate state education agencies promptly. State-mandated contingency plans will likely need to address issues related to the continued validity of the school’s existing state authorization (if accreditation is an underlying criteria for that licensing), impact on professional licensure requirements, alternate accreditation plans and projections for availability of federal and other aid to new and currently enrolled students, among other issues.